The Kelsor left hyperspace as it’s synerdrive spun down. A distant gas giant grew in the distance, but its growth slowed as they slowed, remaining smaller than Akos V looked in Lanan’s sky despite being a far larger planetary body. Another object, once just a single point of light, expanded as the battlecruiser approached. The habitat, Vandos, threatened to eclipse its parent planet with its five-hundred-kilometer width. Through the OPEL panels, the bridge officers could see the flat underside of the giant, discoid station and eight massive, open gates positioned symmetrically across the plane, each an equal distance away from its nearest neighbor and three-fourths of the distance to the station’s perimeter from its central axis. Distant ships gleamed in the light of the system’s star as they eased through the gates, circled the habitat, or shot into hyperwarp.
After receiving clearance to traverse the gates and dock, Naret lined the two-and-a-half-kilometer-long ship up with one of the truly enormous gates labeled with a three-kilometer-long number 4 beside it. The Elestan lieutenant focused within the partial shroud of lumigraphs around her—all sensory aides for this intricate maneuvering to which she was the master. Through these lumigraphs, she knew the dimensions of the battlecruiser and the opening that she needed to cross. All of the minute adjustments made to the gravitics and plasma engines were handled automatically as Naret willed the ship forward. Not for a moment did she feel flustered by this responsibility, and Atara and Sesh were impressed by her performance. The passage appeared harrowing, but it wasn’t as tight of a fit as it seemed. The Kelsor had about half a kilometer of clearance on either side as it gently passed through the gate.
Naret’s conning trial did not conclude until the Kelsor mated with the station. She guided the vessel through the expansive, artificially-lit Vandos Dockyards. Large shuttles—small compared to the battlecruiser—moved personnel, cargo, and materiel through the dim, weightless vaccum as other, larger ships inched into and out of the docks—a mixture of mercenaries, civilians, some Republic, and a few Federation. The Kelsor was crawling now, coasting on its own inertia with Naret making only slight adjustments to its course with gravitics. Naret slotted the ship into one of the large, numbered docks where she allowed the Kelsor’s adjunct to park the ship in the precise location and orientation the dockmaster specified. Like all the other anchored ships, the Kelsor remained perpendicular to the station’s orientation. Two umbilical docking ports articulated out from the dock walls to meet both the port and starboard hangar entrances—the both of them being standard Federation Navy design. Four smaller ports attached themselves to all four docking bays. The Kelsor was secured in dock, and Naret’s lumigraphic shroud disappeared.
After waiting three hours for the first set of starmen to leave the ship and explore the domed metropolis of Vandos City above the Dockyards, Atara, Xannissa, and Sesh approached the white ALAT that would ferry them up to the city.
“Well, well,” said a smirking Cylenna from the driver’s seat as the triumvirate approached. “Looks like I have the honor of being your chauffeur.”
“Gives you an excuse to take your leave with us, right?” Xannissa asked as she sat down in the front passenger seat.
“I do enjoy the privilege, yes.” Atara and Sesh sat down in the back. Once the car’s top was fabricated, Cylenna lifted the vehicle off the hangar floor and pushed it forward through the giant docking port. “So, what’s on the itinerary?”
“Good question,” Atara said. “I haven’t forgotten about Admiral Relex. I need to see if she’s docked, and then get in touch with her.”
“I read they have a really nice museum,” Sesh told them. “Did you know that this station was named after a Federation-born mega-engineer and architect named Doctor Mavin Vandos? They’re supposed to have an exhibit dedicated to him.”
Xannissa asked, “First, why don’t we find a place for lunch? There was a nice place that grows their own seafood.”
“I could go for seafood,” Atara admitted.
Sesh said, “Take us there.”
“Seafood sounds great,” Cylenna said as she piloted the car beyond the umbilical and into the internal portion of Dockyards.
When the ALAT emerged from the Dockyards, Cylenna and the triumvirate found themselves within a well-kept urban sprawl. There was enough atmosphere within the enormous dome to create a characteristic blue sky, clouds, and weather. Everything within Vandos City was under the influence of a gravitics network, giving the billions of residents and visitors one g of gravitational acceleration without the need for spin. Skylanes crisscrossed the sky, and towers ascended for kilometers. Lakes, parks, nature preserves, and even a small saline sea broke up the beautiful, duralithic city blocks, and the entire perimeter of the City was ringed by a mountain range. It was toward those mountains overlooking the azure sea that Cylenna guided the craft, and she set the vehicle down in a lot next to the restaurant they were visiting: a small place called Sorrelin.
“Sorrelin, eh?” Atara said.
“I was thinking the same thing,” Cylenna noted.
“If I’m not mistaken,” Sesh asked, “the famous Elestan sea serpents?”
“Same ones,” Xannissa said as she stepped out of the ALAT. “I figured it would be a good taste of home.”
“What are you talking about?” Cylenna asked loudly. “You’ve never eaten a sorrelin!”
“Neither have you,” Xannissa responded, “but I’d be willing to try it.”
The women were seated at a table on a wooden outdoor deck overlooking the sea. Bordering the deck on either side were verdant conifers swaying in the gentle breeze that carried their terpene scent. An alpine chill nipped at their faces being so far above the rest of the station. Because they were at the station’s edge, they could look out and see just about every other place across Vandos, atmosphere permitting. The air was kept clear, and it was easy to see the distant urban monoliths from the mountainside restaurant, but the mountains at the station’s opposite end were obscured by the sky. Every so often, a low cloud rolled through the forest, giving them the sensation of being in a misty fog. The light received from the system’s star was about that received on Lanan by virtue of distance: about the intensity of average room lighting. The sunlight was far dimmer than a bright planet such as any of the Sister Worlds, but it was easy for anyone to adjust to.
As their young waitress departed from their table with orders in mind, a visibly older woman, an Elestan with silver hair, approached the party of four. The wood beneath their feet creaked with every step. Atara felt a hand on her shoulder. The smiling captain’s expression neutralized as she turned to face the woman.
“Hello there,” said the older woman. “My name’s Xera. I’m the owner.” She offered her hand to Atara, and the Terran captain accepted it and shook it. Xera had seen enough military personnel to know that these women were high-ranking officers, judging from the markings on their standard uniform bodysuits. “What brings you ladies way out here to Vandos?”
“Just running ops in Thalassia Orionis,” Atara told her. “I can’t say much, but my starmen needed some shore leave after what they’ve been through.”
“I see, I see,” Xera said. Her face had retained most of its youthful, feminine beauty despite its age. “What ship did you come in on?”
“Did you say Kelsor?”
“What a coincidence that you would wind up in a place like this!”
“Vandos?” Sesh asked.
“No, my restaurant.”
“The captain and I are from Elestus,” Xannissa explained, “so we thought we’d sample the sorrelin.”
Xera responded, “Then surely you know about the Kelsor? The Kela Sorrelin?”
“I’m afraid not,” Atara said reluctantly.
“The King of the Sea Serpents!” Xera said. “What are they teaching young people?”
“Now that you mention it,” Sesh told her, “it does make sense. I just never equated the name ‘Kelsor’ to the Elestan myth.”
“A fearsome creature with diamond fangs and titanium scales,” Xera said. “Faster than any sailing ship the ancient Elestans could ever produce. He was Elestus’ version of Leviathan. All the sorrelins in existence are female, and today we know that they reproduce via parthenogenesis, but back then they thought there was a lone male keeping the species alive. It’s also how they explained ships lost at sea. If you could see the intricate armor that Elestans fashioned with those tough sorrelin scales. They could deflect bullets!”
Atara told her, “I’m honored that my vessel shares a name with such a magnificent creature.”
“Anyway,” Xera said to them, “I don’t mean to impose. You ladies enjoy the food, and I hope you find Vandos a relaxing place.”
Several minutes later, the young waitress returned carrying four plates. She sat one in front of each of the officers. It didn’t matter who got which plate since they all agreed to order the same dish: baked sorrelin filet with a side of potatoes and assorted baked vegetables. The underside of the filet was composed of the hard, black scales and skin to which the meat was still attached. Xannissa was the first to lift her fork and knife. With the fork, she pierced the seared, white meat and sliced through it with her knife. The juices ran off the filet and onto the plate as steam rose from the cut, filling the air with a smell that was reminiscent of both fish and fowl. Xannissa found that the taste matched the smell as she took her first small bite, expecting the sea serpent to have a gamey texture. But the meat melted in her mouth. The Elestan engineer closed her eyes as she savored the umami. The other three followed her lead, and the conversation they carried was put on hold as they dined. After the four had their fill, overlooking their mostly empty plates, Atara spoke to them.
“I think after this we should head into Vandos City proper. There is a twenty-block area with plenty for the four of us to do. Sesh, that museum you want to visit is there. There’s also some shopping and a bit of night life. There’s a Subnet parlor there if you wanted a better place to talk to Aedan. Has he spoken to you since he left Earth?”
“Not yet, but he did send me a few pictures.”
“That parlor has a simulator that would let you see his apartment as he sees it. When we get downtown, I’ll try to contact Relex; see if she’s available.”
Many minutes later, they were cruising in the ALAT once again, heading for the downtown area. Cylenna found a place to park the Military vehicle at not-so-cheap a price. The women stood with the ALAT while Atara used her Accellus lumigraphs to contact Relex, but while Atara was flipping through lumes, Relex contacted her instead.
“Captain Korrel?” Relex asked, heard by the others.
“This is she. Admiral Relex?”
“Yes. I hear you’re on my station.”
“I am,” Atara stated, “and I wanted to buy you that drink.”
Relex said, “Meet me at the Shattered Star downtown.”
“I’ll see you there.”
The blocks Atara mentioned before were laid out like hexagonal terraces with multiple levels for walking paths, storefronts, and market stalls. The tops of these terraces were occupied by either towers or greenspaces. Thick, leafy deciduous trees formed a partial canopy above the walkways that were lit from beneath by lumionics. People drifted from window to window, some entered the stores, and others stopped in front of market stalls. The women took the stairs out of the parking bay and emerged in a vast public green in the midst of Vandos’ skyrises. Such a lively city was indistinguishable from its planetary analog, and for a while, those aboard the Kelsor could escape the reality that they were still aboard a manmade construct orbiting in the deep black of space. Walking on the pristine paths beneath the trees, the triumvirate witnessed their first instances of Archangels patrolling the station on foot as police officers.
“Mercenary police force,” Sesh muttered as a pair of black-clad Archangels passed them.
“After they came and helped us near the Range,” Xannissa said, “I don’t think it’s a problem.”
“They don’t hide who runs the show,” Atara stated, “that’s for sure, but like Xannissa said, nothing wrong with that. You have to remember that a lot of them were once Federation.”
Sesh said, “A good police force a military does not make.”
“They’re a city-state,” Atara told her, “and their system seems to be working well enough for them.”
The leaves above them rustled in the station’s wind, almost inaudible over the distant murmur of the crowds and their clacking footfalls. This combined with the faint rumble of machinery and whooshing of overhead gravidynes to cast a veil of sonic static that only the birdcalls of nesting and flying avians could penetrate. Then there was the cry of a child, a group of laughing passersby, and then the shouts of a shopkeeper drawing attention to his wares. Xannissa paused in front of one of these loud shopkeepers and examined his stall. When Atara noticed her friend wasn’t keeping up, she tapped Sesh on the shoulder, and the group halted.
“Hey there!” said the shopkeeper. “How ya doin’?”
In an attempt to appear cordial, Xannissa said, “I’m fine. How’re you?”
“Wonderful! Anything interest you?”
The Elestan eased down to look through the glass display cases between her and the young shopkeeper. Her bodysuit brushed against the bodies of other pedestrians as she interrogated what looked like basic civilian communicators. Behind the man were tools and other devices that would be effortless to make with any home REMASS system.
“Do you sell any licenses for these?” Xannissa asked the shopkeeper as she pointed to the display case.
“What for? Oh wait, you an outlander? No one owns civilian REMASS systems here. I buy production time from the Archangels to make all this stuff to sell.”
“Why no civilian REMASS?”
“It’s the statutes, hon. Can’t really talk too much more about it.”
Xannissa backed away from the stall to rejoin the group. She moved her head close to Atara’s and told her, “Did you hear that?”
“I suppose that’s one way the Archangels make their money,” Atara noted.
The women wandered the duralithic plazas until the massive OPEL panels forming the dome began to filter the blue wavelengths of the star’s light, bathing Vandos City in yellows and oranges. Those living on Vandos experienced zenith sunsets due to the station always facing the sun. After visiting another restaurant for dinner, the quartet agreed to part ways and regroup at 2300.
Atara walked alone among the crowds in the artificial night. Even in the post-twilight darkness, the sun remained visible. The OPELs only allowed in enough light to mimic the ambient illumination of a small full moon. Atara and the others failed to take note, being bombarded by the nocturnal brilliance of the downtown region. The skyrises, once having appeared monolithic and plain, were plastered with face-spanning, lumigraphic advertisements. Perhaps they had been visible throughout the day, but their luminosity was far more apparent in the dark. The composition, attire, and attitude of the people around her had also changed—metamorphosed from families, modesty, and temperance to singles, skin, and irresponsibility. Rarely did she find anything of this sort unsettling, but being around the denizens of the night in a wholly unfamiliar place—an orbital habitat, no less—prompted her to fabricate a short jacket and fasten it down the middle to conceal her bodysuited breasts.
Atara’s corneal lumigraphs led her through the busy streets, across suspended walkways, around corners, and to the front of the Shattered Star. The captain looked up at the single lumigraph it had that served as its sign. Looking back down at street level, she found that the rest of the bar’s facade was plain. Other than the sign, the establishment drew no attention to itself. Atara pushed the loose strands of dark garnet hair out of her face before she pulled the door open.
The low, rumbling rhythm of the music vibrated across the floor and through her feet. The sweet smell of ethanol wafted from the bar to her left, but stronger than that was the savory scent of cooked food flooding in from the dining area to the right. Parties of inebriated patrons watched the performances of cooks as they prepared their meals right before their eyes. Laughter would erupt on one side of the large room, and then somewhere else on the other.
The bar was much more subdued. Smaller groups of two, three, or four stood around or sat on tall stools as they conversed with slowing tongues. Atara took a seat at the bar, but though she sat adjacent to no one, she felt the strange sensation that someone was watching her; that she hadn’t arrived alone. The captain looked over her shoulder, seeing a flame shoot upward from one of the grills, illuminating the entire dining room for a moment and ending in applause and more laughter. She turned her head back around to see the male bartender standing eye-to-eye with her.
“What can I start you off with?” he asked her.
“I’m waiting on a friend.”
“Who’s your friend?”
“A woman named Relex.”
“I suppose you don’t mean the Relex?”
“I actually do.”
“You have powerful friends,” the bartender told her. He motioned with his arm, and one of the waitresses appeared. He told the approaching waitress, “She’s here to see her.” The waitress nodded.
“Follow me,” said the waitress. Atara was led into the dining area, past the hearty aromas, sizzling and steam, and into a separate, darker room with private booths segregated by OPEL doors. The door to a booth opened, and she was invited inside. Admiral Relex was seated, wearing her Accellus 3 formal uniform: a dress resembling the Accellus 4’s formals, but equal parts white and light blue. Her skin was a cool gray like Xannissa’s, and her black hair was tied into two buns on top and to either side of her head. She crossed her arms beneath the short jacket that was draped on her shoulders; the sleeves of which fell to either side of her.
Before Atara took her seat, Relex said, “When I told you to meet me, I wasn’t expecting you to bring another.”
“I’m not sure what you mean,” Atara told her. “Is someone else here?”
“Come on, captain!” Relex said loudly. “You insult my intelligence! I can see your phantom bodyguard as clearly as I’m seeing you now.”
“Huh?” Atara turned around to an empty room, save for the waitress, but suddenly a dark gray bodysuit and white SIRAC chest materialized right in front of her, startling the waitress. The short, white hair and neutral gray face immediately betrayed the phantom’s identity to Atara. “Colonel? What are you doing here?”
“Look,” Kyora said defiantly, “you can’t fault your security chief for trying to look out for you. No disrespect to you, Admiral…”
“Of course,” Relex replied.
“…but I’ve had one of those feelings, instincts, whatever you want to call them, since we pulled into dock.”
“How bad is it?” Atara asked her.
“The feeling. How bad?”
“Honestly? Feels like someone is tightening a bolt into my gut.”
“Both of you,” Relex told them, “have a seat.” The mercenary admiral motioned to the seat across the table from herself. The two women complied. Kyora refused to sit down until Atara did, ensuring that the phantom positioned herself on the outside of the booth. “Colonel, huh?” Relex asked. Kyora said nothing.
“Commander of our Aurora complement,” Atara explained.
“I understand,” Relex said. “I feel like whatever I were to talk to you about would just get passed on anyway, so why not entertain the both of you? Anyway, we’re keeping the waitress waiting.” Relex turned toward the waitress and spoke her order. “Bring me a martini on the rocks.”
Atara said, “I’ll just have gin and tonic, thanks.”
“I don’t drink,” Kyora told them. Relex gave the Elestan phantom an odd look, so Kyora followed up with, “I can’t do my job with dulled senses.” The waitress departed and the OPEL door closed, sealing the three of them within a private chamber.
“So, you triumphed over the Voulgenathi?”
“And did the Federation Navy’s revenge quest profit you at all?”
“I’m not inclined to talk about it.”
“I’m glad,” Relex told her, “otherwise the premium I paid for the information I have would’ve been worthless.”
“Is that so?” Atara asked.
“That’s quite a haul you have, captain, for such a tiny crystal. That with your synerdrive makes your Kelsor a treasure trove.”
“Is that a threat, admiral?”
“Not from me, no. I admire you, captain. As someone in charge, I need people around me who will blindly follow my orders.”
“What? Did I get a little too close to the truth?”
“I’m a patriot. I’m serving my country.”
“And I admire that, I do. But what about the long term? What’s going to be left of your Federation when the next major conflict erupts? What happens to Civilized Space when one superpower has the capability to bring it all to ruin?”
“What’s your point?”
“Wouldn’t you be a better patriot if you could ensure its integrity for the ages to come? If you could prevent it from becoming an unstoppable hegemon?”
“I would never put the Federation at risk of being overtaken.”
“I see,” Relex said. “So short-sighted. As you can probably guess, I am well aware of your ecksivar. I am also aware of its capabilities, and I shudder when I think about it. An omnium neutralizer would be the beginning of the end for humanity.”
“Absolutely! Aren’t you? The winds are shifting. A storm is coming.” Relex paused for a moment, letting out a sigh. She continued, saying, “My apologies, captain. I’m a pessimist. It’s no wonder I find myself in here at least three nights a week with gin in my hand.
“But do hear me out. The powder keg is ready, and its more massive than at any point in history. The fuse is primed and ready to be lit. When everything is finally set in motion, you know that the next galactic war will be the last. Civilized Space will rip itself to shreds. That’s why I left the Navy and came out here. It’s places like Vandos that will be on top when that happens, and we’ll be picking up the pieces.”
“That last part sounds too overly-optimistic for a pessimist.”
“It might be.” The waitress returned with their drinks, opened the OPEL door, and set them both down upon the table. “Can you bring me another?” Relex asked. The waitress nodded. When the waitress departed, the admiral had three good sips before speaking again.
“Captain, there is something I need to tell you. Despite what I said, I don’t want to see any harm come to you, so listen closely. Our scouts and long range subdar have detected an increase in activity from here to Mirida. The Tribesson syndicates have been flexing their muscles more than usual. You’re good people, so I don’t want you heading home unprepared.”
“I appreciate that,” Atara told her. “We still have a way to go.”
Kyora, who had only been listening until then, asked, “Is it Domina?”
“Largely Domina,” Relex told her. “I hate those people. They think they own these volumes.”
“I’m pretty sure Eclipse thinks she does,” Kyora replied.
“Oh, right. That bitch. I’ve had to meet with her face-to-face before, and you would not believe the arrogance. Now that I mention it… no. I won’t say it.”
“Say what?” Atara asked.
“Colonel, you look a lot like her,” Relex told the other Elestan.
“I’m not surprised you said that,” Kyora replied.
“We’re literally cut from the same cloth.”
“Are you clones or something?”
“We are clones, conceived by Unit.”
“I remember Unit.”
“They were rivals to the Archangels for a while a long time ago, then suddenly they dropped off the radar and never came back.”
“That’s when they morphed into Domina.”
“So Unit was Domina’s predecessor?”
“In a sense.”
“That’s interesting. It’s a small galaxy after all.” Relex had just finished her martini when the waitress brought her another. “Just be on the lookout, captain. I’d hate to see your mission end in tragedy.”